For the fourth consecutive year – and the ninth time in 14 seasons – the New England Patriots are back in the AFC Championship.
Even better? This might be their best all-around team since they last won a Super Bowl in 2005.
“No question about it,” CBS Sports lead announcer Jim Nantz said on Gio and Jones. “This team is so much more well-rounded than what they’ve had (since the Super Bowl days). They’ve missed it on (the defensive side) for a long time, and now they’re well-rounded. This New England team, I think, really is the best since the championship era.”
That’s good for Patriots fans – because their team is going to get tested this Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, who have beaten the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos by double digits each of the last two weeks.
For Indianapolis, it all starts, of course, with Andrew Luck.
“This kid is amazing,” Nantz said. “He’s almost impossible to take down. He takes a beating oftentimes – although they’ve really protected him well in the playoffs – and he just keeps getting back up. He’s got a terrific arm, makes terrific decisions and he has carried this team to this point. Now everybody’s rallying around him.”
Since losing 42-7 to Dallas in Week 16, the Colts have held three straight opponents to 13 points or fewer.
“I’m not going to sell anybody short, but they are definitely exceeding expectations to this point getting to the AFC Championship Game – because there were some real missing parts to that team,” Nantz said. “They were exposed in some really big match-ups this year – against New England in the regular season (and) at Pittsburgh when (Ben) Roethlisberger threw six touchdowns against them. Dallas beat them up, 42-7. Somehow it’s coming together. This running back out of Ohio State, Boom Herron, has become a big part of this story, a big intangible. I’m excited to see the matchup.”
Herron has rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns and caught 18 balls for 117 yards in Indy’s two playoff games.
The Colts will need Herron to be at his best this Sunday, especially since Bill Belichick has had his way with the Colts in the Luck era. The Patriots won 59-24 in 2012, 43-22 in the playoffs in 2013, and 42-20 in 2014.
That’s an average margin of victory of 26 points.
“Belichick has had not only the upper hand in these match-ups against the Colts since 2012,” Nantz said. “It’s been decisive.”
Still, you have to credit Chuck Pagano for what he’s done in Indianapolis, leading the Colts to an 11-5 record in three straight seasons.
“I think the coaching job by Chuck Pagano has been really undervalued and overlooked, and it shouldn’t be,” Nantz said. “His players love him. There is something special going on in that locker room in Indianapolis. The guy’s won at least 11 games each of his first three years, and one of those years (2012) was not only his first year there, but Luck’s first year (as well). Taking a rookie quarterback and steering his team to 11 wins – and I know he went through his health issues and everything, but believe me, his presence was behind it. I have a great regard for him.”